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Detroit’s bankruptcy filing isn’t really a surprise.  Despite all the good efforts to prop up the U.S. auto industry and thereby one of America’s great cities, no one who travels to Detroit regularly thought it was on the rebound.  This unverified list of Detroit’s shortcomings is a good checklist for all cities facing economic tough times to monitor.  We all hope and wish the best for Detroit.

What stuns me the most is how unfortunate it is that Mayor Dave Bing and Detroit’s civic leaders missed the opportunity they had in their hands several years ago – to shrink the city.  There are acres and acres of unused land, hundreds if not thousands of homes and buildings that are so dilapidated they need to be torn down.  Bing had the drive and momentum to do so.  If he would have succeeded, he could have legitimately shrunk city services into areas of Detroit with livable, sustainable neighborhoods.  While it would have been politically painful, residents would be relocated into existing neighborhoods that could benefit from added residents.  The abandoned land could have been cleaned up and marketed for development at a longer-term pace.  It was a bold plan that would shake Detroit and many urban cities out of the long, slow slide to economic ruin.

Instead nothing happened, the city leaders kept hoping for a miracle (like 100 more Dan Gilberts) and failure became inevitable.  The game plans for cities are out there, from a BBC story to Time.  What doesn’t seem to be in ready supply is the civic will, business support and political fortitude for a mayor of a dying city to say, “To survive, we need to shrink.  And here is how it is going to work…”

We can certainly make the case that Cleveland is in much better financial position thanks to solid budgeting, improved efficiency and steady political leadership.  But Cleveland, like Akron, Canton, Youngstown and Warren all have large unused tracts of land that they still must supply city services to.  Maybe the next round of regionalism discussions needs to include “shrinkage” on the action agenda.

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